Works of Lev Vygotsky

Three Theories of Psycho-Cultural Development

The first problem involved in considering the problem of man’s historical development is to define the distinctive traits of the development process with which we are concerned here. Psychologists have put forward three successive viewpoints or principles characterizing human historical development.

The first viewpoint, advanced by Taylor and Spenser, guided the first ethnographers and ethnologists, who amassed a vast amount of factual material on the question of the laws, beliefs, institutions and language of primitive peoples.

In psychology, these authors espoused the views of what is known as associationism. They assumed that the basic law of psychology is the law of association, that is the connection established between the elements of our experience on the basis of their close relationship or their similarity. The laws of the human spirit, they believed, have always been the same, at all times and in all places.

The mechanism of mental activity and the very structure of the processes of thought and behavior are identical in both primitive and civilized man the theory also holds that any peculiarities which distinguish the thought and behavior of primitive man from those of civilized man can be understood and explained in terms of the conditions in which that primitive man lives and thinks.

The authors argue that if we, as civilized people, were to find ourselves suddenly deprived of all the vast body of accumulated human experience, and living in the conditions experienced by primitive man, we would think and behave exactly as he does. The crucial factor, therefore, lies not in the apparatus of thought and behavior or in the special mechanisms that distinguish the civilized from the uncivilized psyche, but solely in the material, in the quantity of experience available to each psyche.

Proceeding from this understanding, these authors considered primitive animism, or the theory whereby all natural phenomena and objects are animated, to be the central phenomenon underlying the whole of the cultural development of primitive man.

Primitive man, bewildered by dream-like phenomena, during which he would see dead or absent people, and talk or fight with them, or find himself transported a long way from where he woke up, etc., began to believe in the objectivity of those representations. He began to believe in the duality of his own being. On the basis of an analogy with his own observations of himself, he also accounted for natural phenomena, behind which, in his opinion, souls or spirits were active.

These authors attribute the emergence of animism, that natural philosophy of primitive man, arising from the natural laws of the human spirit, to the law of the association of ideas and the naive application of the causative principle. It is axiomatic, in their view, that the human spirit has always been the same, throughout the whole of human development and in all parts of the world. Their belief is corroborated, in particular, by the similarity of specific beliefs, customs and institutions observed among peoples living in widely separated geographic regions.

The basic psychological mechanism of behavior, the law of the association of ideas, and the basic principle of logical thought, the causative principle, are thus the common patrimony of both primitive and civilized man. The only difference is that in civilized man both of these, instruments of psychological associations and logical thought can draw on a vast body of experience and material, whereas the experience of primitive man is limited and his material small. Hence the difference between the psyche of one and the other.

It is easy to see that this approach to the question neatly disposes of the whole problem of human psychological development in the process of history. True development is impossible when we find exactly the same phenomena at both the beginning and the end of the road. Instead of development, in the proper sense of the term, what we are talking about here is rather the accumulation of experience. The actual mechanism for the accumulation and processing of that experience is fundamentally the same at both the beginning and end. Throughout the process of overall historical change, it alone remains unchanged.

This naive view has been abandoned long ago by psychology. Nothing could be more simple-minded than to imagine primitive man as a natural philosopher and to attribute all his thinking and behavior to the peculiarities of his philosophy. The development of human thought and behavior is driven not by theoretical or ideal interest, but by material requirements. Primitive man is motivated more by practical than theoretical considerations, and in his psyche logical thought is subordinate to his instinctive and emotional reactions.

In the words of Pokrovsky, “Nothing could be further from the truth than to suppose that the savage’s outlook on the world is the source of his religion; on the contrary, the worldview was formed on the basis of certain existing religious emotions. Instead of an explanation, all one finds at the root of primitive religion is an absence of explanation. The religious thinking of savages is based not on representation, or the logical operation of thought, but on emotion, which is in general the starting point of any conscious process."[3]

Research also showed that the psychological mechanism of the thought and behavior of primitive man constitute a historical variable. The law of the association of ideas and of the principle of causative thinking certainly do not encompass all aspects of the thinking of primitive man. LÚvy-Bruhl was the first who sought to demonstrate that the psychological mechanism of the thinking of primitive and civilized man was different.

He also tried to define the nature of that difference, and establish the most general laws governing the functioning of the psychological mechanism in primitive man. His fundamental approach was quite the opposite of that espoused by Taylor.

He proceeds from two basic ideas. The first was that the laws of individual psychology, such as the laws of the association of ideas, cannot provide explanations for the beliefs and collective representations that emerge in any people or society, as social phenomena. These collective representations emerge as a result of the social life of any particular people. All members of a group have them in common. Here they are transmitted from generation to generation. Quite often they are not elaborated in each individual, but are transmitted to that individual fully formed. They both precede and succeed him, just as language has a social existence, independent of any particular individual.

In this way, the basic view of the question itself changes. In the words of Conte, LÚvy-Bruhl seeks not to define mankind in terms of man, but man in terms of mankind. For him the peculiarities of the primitive peoples cannot be deduced from the psychological laws of an individual life; on the contrary, he tries to explain the psychology of the individual on the basis of the nature of the collective representations emerging in those groups, and the type or structure of the society in which those people live.

LÚvy-Bruhl’s premise is that different types of society are associated with different types of human psychology, each of them quite distinctive, just as the psychology of vertebrates can be distinguished from that of invertebrates.

Like the various parts of the animal kingdom, the different social structures also have certain common features inherent in any kind of human society language, traditions, institutions. However, together with those common features, LÚvy-Bruhl argues, human societies, like organisms, can exhibit profoundly different structures, and thus corresponding differences in the higher psychological functions. Therefore, it is quite wrong to begin by reducing psychological operations to a single type, disregarding the structure of the society, and to attribute all collective representations to a psychological and logical mechanism which remains unchanged throughout.

He set out to compare two psychological types that are as far apart as they could be: the type of thinking of primitive and civilized man. The basic conclusion reached by LÚvy-Bruhl in his research is that the higher psychological functions of primitive man are profoundly different from those same functions in civilized man; and that consequently the very type of thinking and behavior constitutes a historical variable, and that in the process of historical development man’s psychological nature changes as much as his social nature.

We have already noted that in the opinion of LÚvy-Bruhl the type of psychological functions is directly dependent on the social structure of the group to which an individual belongs. Wishing to offer some general characterization of this special type of primitive thinking, LÚvy-Bruhl designates it as prelogical or mystical thinking.

By the use of this term, he did not mean to suggest that such thinking was contrary to logic (antilogical) or totally unrelated to logical forms, and lying wholly outside the confines of logic (alogical). By “prelogical” he simply meant a type of thinking that had not yet developed as far as the form of logical thinking. Such thinking is characterized by insensitivity to contradictions; its basic feature is the “law of participation” whereby, in the mind of primitive man, one and the same thing may partake of several entirely different forms of being. This “law of participation” leads primitive man to establish in his thinking the kind of connections which provide LÚvy-Bruhl with justification for ascribing a mystical character to primitive thinking as a whole.

Many researchers have already noted that this definition is incorrect. Externally, when viewed from the standpoint of civilized man, this behavior and thinking seem alogical or mystical. Thurnwald writes, “Primitive thinking only appears to be alogical.” In actual fact, however, from the point of view of primitive man himself, it is quite logical, as Thurnwald explains by a simple example.

When someone suffers from fits or illness of any sort, primitive man assumes that an evil spirit has entered his body. To cure the sick person they try to drive out the spirit, by proceeding exactly as they would it they were expelling an actual person: they call out the spirit’s name, demand that he go away, and intimidate him with noise.

Such ceremonies seem meaningless to us, because we understand an epileptic fit or an illness from the standpoint of modern science. Yet from the standpoint of primitive man, for whom all changes in a person are the result of external influences, either favorable or unfavorable, his attempts to act on those forces in the manner described in our example seem perfectly logical.

LÚvy-Bruhl’s theory is open to serious objection not only on the basis of Thurnwald’s arguments, but also on grounds of objective psychology. Thurnwald rightly observes that from the subjective point of view of primitive man himself his magic ceremonial for the expulsion of spirits, in order to heal the sick, is perfectly logical.

That same primitive man, however, as can be easily shown, also demonstrates objectively logical thinking whenever the purpose of his actions is direct adaptation to nature. The invention and use of tools, hunting, animal husbandry, agriculture, and fighting all demand from him real and not just apparent logical thought.

In the sphere of practical activity, together with the type of thinking described by LÚvy-Bruhl, primitive man clearly also has a command of logical thought in the true sense of the term, although it is inadequately developed.

Yet LÚvy-Bruhl unquestionably deserves credit for being the first to raise the problem of the historical development of thinking. He showed that the type of thinking, per se, is not a constant, but a variable, which develops throughout history Researchers pursuing his line of inquiry have tried to account more precisely for the difference in the historical types of thinking of civilized and primitive man, as well as the distinctive features of the historical development of human psychology. At the same time, a third view of the process of man’s cultural development was established.